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Love Makes Her World Go ‘Round

Jan 22, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Allison J. Waldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

On CBS’s “Guiding Light,” actress Beth Ehlers has done it all. She’s been a rookie cop, a corporate executive, a private eye and even a Marvel Comics superhero named The Guiding Light. Yet to hear Ms. Ehlers tell it, what she’s done more than anything else is fall in love. “I’ve always played love stories,” said Ms. Ehlers. “They don’t write me cancer stories or rape stories. They write me love stories. We’ve all been in love; we’ve all had our hearts broken. I think that’s something that resonates with everybody.”

Resonating with viewers and making connections is precisely what Ms. Ehlers has done since she began on “Guiding Light.” “When I came on 20 years ago, it was a different show,” said Ms. Ehlers. “I very quickly learned the `Guiding Light’ tone as opposed to the other soap operas. It was based on family and relationships. It was a real actors’ show.”

That suited Ms. Ehlers to a tee, because unlike some soap actors who land a part but fail to make an impression, she was an immediate standout. Her very first story line had her as a pregnant teen determined to give up her baby for adoption. Her character, Harley Davidson Cooper, was so dynamic that she soon became the linchpin of the Coopers, a new core family on the show. “The Coopers were Greek. They had a diner. They were blue collar. They were ethnic compared to the Lewises, Spauldings and Bauers.”

They were also close-knit, and the actors excelled in their roles. Over the years, Ms. Ehlers has appreciated that her co-stars, Frank Dicopoulos (Frank) and Justin Deas (Buzz), as her brother and father, respectively, have remained constant. “I feel really blessed to work with them and we work very hard to make those relationships true. Justin and I always play it like Harley will never forgive Buzz for abandoning her,” said Ms. Ehlers. “All the damage in her life was caused by this man. We keep that alive. Frank Dicopoulos is like a brother to me. Working with him is effortless.”

Through the years Ms. Ehlers had favorite story lines, though two in particular came to mind. There was the time the show went on location to Washington and Harley discovered her father had not died in Vietnam because his name wasn’t found on the Vietnam Memorial. “That day was bitterly cold and the tears literally froze on our faces,” Ms. Ehlers said. “I remember also trying to understand what it must be like to have an idea about something your whole life and then to have that completely shattered. There was a puzzle piece missing from her life.”

Her other favorite was a love story. “When Kim Zimmer left the show to spend time with her family, they decided to put Harley together with Josh (Robert Newman). Everyone thought the audience wouldn’t go for it, but the fans loved it. What I loved about it is that it was very `Jane Eyre.’ You had Josh storming around the castle, while Harley was cleaning up the mess and taking care of his children.”

For the upcoming “Guiding Light” 70th anniversary celebration, a special episode will air Jan. 25 re-creating the first radio broadcast of the soap. Ms. Ehlers plays “Guiding Light” creator Irna Phillips, and she took her part seriously. “My initial research turned up some really ho-hum stuff. Not enough to fill a character. So I organized a lunch with two actors who actually worked with her [on] `As the World Turns,’ Eileen Fulton and Don Hastings,” said Ms. Ehlers.

Thanks to them, Ms. Ehlers learned firsthand what kind of woman Ms. Phillips was, but then discovered even more by surfing the Web. “I found an article that had been done in the Common Review, which I don’t know if it’s even still around. They talked more about her racy side. She went to college, but she had affairs. She had an abortion when she became involved with a married man,” said Ms. Ehlers. “Her first soap opera was financed by her boyfriend, who was one of the heads of the Chicago mob! It was the Depression and it’s generally accepted that this guy put up the money for the show because where else did she get that money?”

To Ms. Ehlers, Ms. Phillips was a woman ahead of her time. “She never married. She went up against the old boys’ network and she won. These were her shows and she was doing them her way. And I can see why, because even now in this business, people are afraid of change,” said Ms. Ehlers. “They worry about what the audience will say. Instead of just writing the stories, they worry. You cannot mix art and corporations and that’s always been true because they’re going to ask you to compromise or make it more palatable. Irna wouldn’t do that.”

The fact that “Guiding Light” has lasted 70 years on the air is an amazing achievement, and a tribute to Ms. Phillips. “This show was Irna’s idea of what a soap opera should be. It was about love and heartbreak and relationships. I think we’ve sped up how we tell stories now because people are used to everything being resolved in half an hour.”

When asked her reaction to the anniversary, Ms. Ehlers is more a realist than a cheerleader. “I think some of it has been luck. It was the first. So while you hear that soap operas may be coming to an end, maybe `Guiding Light’ will be the last. I don’t think any other show will ever reach 70,” said Ms. Ehlers. Still, she cannot deny the accomplishment, or her joy in being part of it. “There has to be a great respect for that. Maybe with a little bit of time, somebody can look back on this and figure out why it has lasted so long. I feel lucky to have been a part of it. This is the only show that I’ve ever done and I’m proud of that.”